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THE INFLUENCE GAME: Forged Letters Went Unreported

A coal group and two of its contractors were aware of forged lobbying letters that had been sent to three Democratic House members before a vote on major climate legislation, but the lawmakers weren't told about the forgeries until well after the vote, according to documents obtained by a congressional committee.

The documents, reviewed by The Associated Press, offer a rare behind-the-scenes look into the millions of dollars spent on grass-roots lobbying efforts. Because of a loophole in federal lobbying law, such efforts to gin up pressure from lawmakers' constituents do not have to be publicly disclosed.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has previously acknowledged that the firm it hired through a subcontractor, Bonner & Associates, sent forged letters critical of the climate legislation purportedly from local nonprofit groups to the congressional offices. Bonner blamed the fakes on a temporary employee who has since been fired.

But the coal group disclosed new details in a letter to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., whom House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has assigned to deal with climate legislation. The group says that on June 25, it contacted its primary grass-roots lobbying contractor, the Hawthorn Group, and "demanded that Bonner promptly make contact with the affected member offices and organizations." In a separate letter to Markey, Hawthorn said it instructed Bonner that same day to notify the lawmakers.

But Bonner didn't call any of the lawmakers until after the June 26 vote, when the House narrowly approved the climate bill. In a letter to Markey, Bonner's lawyer said Bonner left messages for two of the lawmakers _ Reps. Tom Perriello, D-Va., and Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa. _ on July 1, but didn't reach them until July 13. The other lawmaker to receive the forged letters, Rep. Chris Carney, D-Pa., wasn't contacted at that time "due to a miscommunication," the letter says.

Bonner declined to comment to the AP on the delay in notifying the lawmakers.

Markey, one of the climate bill's primary sponsors, scheduled a hearing on the matter Thursday before his Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

The coal group, a consortium of coal and electric power companies, takes some of the blame for the delay, acknowledging in a letter to Markey "that it should have taken steps to make certain that Bonner completed these notifications or should have conducted these notifications itself before the scheduled vote."

Perriello ended up voting for the bill; the other two lawmakers voted against it.

Bonner's lawyer also told the committee that the fired employee had been working for the firm just eight days when the forged letters were discovered. The firm said it paid temporary employees an hourly wage but also bonuses for letters they generated within an assigned congressional district. The fired employee picked up a bonus of $350.

Bonner billed Hawthorn for $43,500 but has not been paid; the coal group told Hawthorn not to pay the bill, according to a letter from Hawthorn. A document from the coal group indicates it paid Hawthorn about $7 million last year for grass-roots lobbying services and around $3 million through the first six months of this year.

Hawthorn hired Bonner to focus on lawmakers in seven congressional districts, including the three who received the forged letters, and to solicit support from veterans, minority and seniors organizations. The documents include an e-mail from Hawthorn to Bonner, with the subject line, "Ready to Rumble," on the seven targeted House members. After Perriello's name, the e-mail reads, "note that we are looking at him as a possible champion, so anything we can do here to help that would be good." Lobbyists often refer to lawmakers who will carry their cause in Congress as "champions."

The documents also include talking points provided by Bonner to prospective groups, such as, "Hi, xyz, I amworking with seniors/retirees to help stop their utility bills from doubling," and asking if the group would like to join other seniors groups in writing a letter. If the group were receptive, Bonner would fax it a draft letter. The organization could then make changes to the text, sign it and send it back for transmission to Capitol Hill.

Because of time pressure, the company's lawyer said, "logos were copied from the organization's Web sites and inserted onto draft letters."

In all, Bonner generated 58 letters under its contract with Hawthorn. Initially, the number of forged letters was thought to be 12, including an NAACP Virginia chapter and a Virginia Latino advocacy group. But the coal group said a review by its law firm raised concern about the authenticity of two other letters, from a seniors center and a veterans organization.

Bonner's lawyer said in the letter that the firm is starting a five-point plan to avoid a repeat of the forgeries, such as 100 percent callback verification to groups that have signed letters, ethics training for temporary employees and an independent ethical standards adviser.


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